English teachers across the country will have their hearts broken when they see The Great Gatsby, director Baz Luhrmann’s latest attempt to modernize classic literature with an explosion of glitter. Through glitzy production design and anachronistic music cues, Luhrmann drains all the meaning from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novella, leaving only the symbols but not what they represent. Luhrmann values Gatby’s extravagant parties more than Fitzgerald was trying to say; he’d be more at home shooting a music video than a story about America’s adolescent soul.
The biggest split from Fitzgerald is how Luhrmann and co-screenwriter Craig Pearce frame the narrative. Nick Carraway (Tobey Magiure) still narrates the story, but in this version he does it from an insane asylum. A psychiatrist sees that Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio) stirs something within Nick, so he implores his patient to write it all down. The decision is not a bad one: it gives Nick a clearer context, and the book already plays with a narrator who doesn’t quite trust himself. Luhrmann also lifts key phrases from the book and put them on the screen when they’re spoken. It’s his version of honoring Fitzgerald, I guess, but the effect just points to Luhrmann’s superficial engagement with the material. He knows these words matter to a lot of people. He just doesn’t understand why.
The first section of the film is where Luhrmann clearly has the most fun (things like conflict and character are secondary). Luhrmann’s version of Long Island and New York looks both modern and vintage. Some choices are so audacious that they’re unintentionally funny: when Nick parties with Myrtle Wilson (Isla Fisher), the soundtrack shifts abruptly from jazz to dub-step (the scene plays out a lot like this Key and Peele sketch). Character introductions are similarly ham-fisted. Daisy (Carey Mulligan) looks angelic as white curtains flutter through the room she’s in, and when we first see Gatsby, Luhrmann pairs Leo’s handsome face with fireworks. The moment is meant to be galvanizing, offering a sense of excitement and relief, but Luhrmann’s on-the-nose sensibilities muck up the introduction. DiCaprio’s smile has never been more corny and awkward.
Luhrmann is not responsible for all the problems in The Great Gatsby. Fitzgerald’s text includes scenes that don’t adapt to film well: there’s a long verbal fight between Gatsby and Daisy’s husband Tom (Joel Edgerton), but there’s no tension without Nick’s commentary, so the dialogue sags when it should pop. In terms of linear plot, the book is all over the place –asides and flashbacks are constant – which is fine for subjective narrator. Film is the more objective medium, and when Luhrmann dials back his style to finish the story, he does not have the chops to handle argument scenes. More importantly, Luhrmann’s unabashed affection for lavish production design demonstrates fundamental misinterpretation with the material. Fitzgerald criticizes the milieu of his world while Luhrmann celebrates it, and this misfire undermines the movie at every turn.
All the actors are good sports (or should I say “old sports”?), yet none of them can stop Luhrmann’s descent into tedium. Maguire’s squeaky voice and boyish looks are a good entry point, and his hardening into an unhappy man is a convincing transition. DiCaprio plays Gatsby like he’s halfway between a con man and a kid, which is a good choice for the role. The lead-up to the reunion between Gatsby and Daisy, his long-lost lover, works because DiCaprio makes it seem as if Gatsby has never kissed a girl before. Mulligan does not have the same nuance because Fitzgerald does not supply it for her: she does not capture Nick’s attention like Gatsby does, so she has no choice but to look superficially waifish. Unsurprisingly, the best performances come from Edgerton and Jason Clarke, who plays Myrtle’s husband George. Their motivations are always clear, so the actors have no problem adding emotion where it’s necessary. Fitzgerald intentionally kept the agenda of his principle characters obscure – where went to always wonder what’s the deal with Gatsby – but the movie lacks the interest to even dig into high school term paper territory.
Baz Luhrmann would have been a great silent film director. Back then the emphasis was on sets, gestures, and faces. Luhrmann could have thrived if he was working at a period where peers built ornate rooms, but did not yet have the grammar for complex narrative. I bet the characters of The Great Gatsby might have even enjoyed a Luhrmann film from the silent era. Alas, here he’s an absurd stylist who squeezes source material into his little comfort zone, when a better director would have the humility to do it the other way around. The Great Gatsby does a disservice to high school students and readers everywhere because Luhrmann might as well have adapted the CliffsNotes version. At least English teachers will be able to tell when their students skipped the book for the movie.